The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum (“TALA”) is an abandoned psychiatric hospital that was built in Weston, WV in the mid-19th century. After almost 150 years of treating the mentally ill, it was closed in 1994 after it became over-crowded and outdated. Since then, TALA has offered tours of its historic grounds and once a year it offers photographers relatively unrestricted access to the grounds and buildings.
As a psychologist and photographer the campus holds a special interest to me, so I eagerly anticipated a trip for the photographers’ access this September. Seven of us journeyed to Weston, located in the middle of West Virginia.
We arrived early evening and got in a few shots before the sun completely faded. Then dinner, and back for some night shots. The dawn sun completely illuminates the main building and we were up early to take advantage. As is common in the fall, there was a curtain of fog that created a haunting atmosphere on the grounds. Before the doors were opened the 20 photographers that had signed up began gathering and taking early morning shots. After registration, we were turned loose to explore the buildings. It was a chilly 39 degrees outdoors and but it was warmer inside, and despite the lack of a heating system the stone walls keep the place comfortable.
The patient rooms and day areas are in various stages of decrepitude, but it’s not difficult to imagine what life must have been like there. The rooms are small, spare and were lit by overhead fluorescent tubes, which must have created a stark, harsh environment. Thick wooden doors, most of them missing their locks, stand open. In some wards curtains provided privacy, suggesting that some patients were less securely housed. The interior of these stone and brick buildings admit little sunlight. The windows are large, but the mesh and security grids limit the light.
And that makes shooting in TALA a challenge. Expect to use high ISOs, open apertures and some flash. A tripod is a good idea. I tried to capture the sad ambiance of a once proud building as it crumbles from the inside out. Peeling paint hangs like stalactites from the ceilings and molts from the walls, as they shed layers that have accumulated over a century, in some places. There is little real color. The paint has faded and there are bare patches where plaster has simply fallen to the floor. In the day areas there may be wallpaper, but little to suggest that this was ever a warm, comforting place.
Be aware that there many of the spaces are dusty and dirty and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there are mold colonies. If you are sensitive to any of that, consider wearing a mask. I didn’t see anyone doing so, but I could understand why someone with breathing problems might.
The first floor of the Kirkbride building has displays describing life and treatment at TALA, as well as the history of the complex. Over its lifetime TALA embodied the humane and enlightened treatment of mental illness, as well as the inhumane and horrifying, such as lobotomies.
TALA is a unique opportunity and if you like the challenge of recording urban decay, this is a must-see. Whatever your reasons for going, it is a photographic and visual experience that will enlighten and sadden.